2011 Record: (7-6, 3-5 in ACC)
Head Coach: Larry Fedora (34-19 at USM, first year at UNC)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Independence Bowl: lost to Missouri 41-24
Out of Conference Challenge: 9/15 at Louisville
Swing Games: 9/8 at Wake Forest, 10/13 at Miami (FL), 10/27 vs NC State, 11/10 vs GT, 11/15 at Virginia
Stat to Cheer: 2012 opponents winning percentage (from 2011 games) is just 47.3%
Stat to Fear: allowed opponents to convert 44.85% of third downs (11th in ACC, 95th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 6; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Kevin Reddick (71 tackles), DE Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 4 sacks), DT Sylvester Williams (54 tackles, 2.5 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Giovani Bernard (1253 yds, 45 rec, 14 TD), QB Bryn Renner (26 TD, 13 INT), WR Erik Highsmith (51 rec, 5 TD), OG Jonathan Cooper, OT James Hurst
CFBZ: Now that Larry Fedora has been in place for a few months, what are you initial thoughts on him?
Matt: I am always cautious on giving the castle to new coaches for what they are doing in the off season. Tar Heel fans should have learned from praising Butch Davis too much for off recruiting/hype, but Larry Fedora has done some things already that make me see a quality coach and a good hire for UNC. John Bunting came in and spoke with passion about rivalries and really excited UNC football fans, but he failed to recognize how much work had to be done in recruiting. Larry Fedora has hit the road and so far he is getting some recruits a new coach might not secure. This and his track record for high powered offense and aggressive defense think he should be a mainstay in Chapel Hill for a while.
CFBZ: The biggest issue with UNC last year was the secondary (10th in the conference in passing yards allowed, and 11th in passing plays of 10+ yards given up). How will the coaching changes affect the Tar Heels defense this season?
Matt: This question identified a major problem for UNC last year. The Tar Heel secondary was the most maligned group during 2011 season. There was some promise as Tim Scott played well for most of the season as a true Freshman and Tre Boston looked more comfortable when he transitioned back to safety, but losing Charles Brown (UNC's best cover corner) and Matt Merletti the secondary is a area where some new comers can earn quick playing time.
The secondary at times was put in situations where UNC utilized a 3 man rush requiring the corners to cover longer and seeing many teams converting a high percentage of 3rd downs (43%). I think the coaching philosophy that is being brought to town puts more emphasis on bringing more pressure in a variety of ways which could help UNC’s secondary. When you hear that Fedora is moving from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 you could think very quickly that with UNC’s secondary putting 5 DBs in the backfield is a odd move. Confidence is such a key ingredient in playing in the secondary and very few cornerbacks can cover for over 4 seconds and be successful. Whatever scheme they use each week the coaching staff must rebuild this group’s confidence. There are some talented players on the roster, and earlysuccess will do wonders for this group.
Look for Brandon Ellerbe, Kameron Jackson and Sam Smiley to battle Jabiri Price and Terry Shankle for playing time at the corner position. Tim Scott should hold down the other side, but with a new coaching staff more guys will get looks and the competition should be intensified. As far as the safety position goes Tre Boston will continue to get better and Gene Robinson looked better toward the end of the year. Pete Mangum showed times where he can be a solid player, but consistency is a area both he and Robinson better improve.
During the spring game the secondary looked faster than last season and this is not just related to pure speed. They appeared to anticipate plays in front of them which comes with more experience. Sam Smiley and Gene Robinson look much improved in the spring game. Jabiri Price showed the type of play that made him a top recruit coming into to UNC. This is an area that must continue to develop moving forward this fall because the ACC is loaded with quality quarterback play.
CFBZ: Phil Steele ranks UNC #13 in his pre-season poll. What needs to happen for the Heels to live up to these lofty expectations?
Matt: I think Phil Steele has not done his homework in the ACC if he is predicting UNC who was 3-5 in their division and was hammered in the bowl game to start off pre-season #13. UNC lost its best pass rusher to the NFL, leading receiver, and the best linebacker arguably in the ACC in Zach Brown. For UNC to finish that high in the rankings it will mean stars have aligned and Larry Fedora’s offense took the ACC by storm similar to how Chad Morris did at Clemson. UNC only faces 3 pre-season top 25 teams and with Gio Bernard and Bryn Renner in the backfield the Tar Heels should have a chance in all of their games. They play Virginia Tech at home and this match up has been historically close since the Hokies joined the league. I think the Tar Heels have too many question marks on defense to think about ranking them in the top twenty five. If the defense can find away to get off the field on third down more often and be more efficient on offense with third down then they have a chance to win some games. I have a hard time ranking the Heels anywhere near the top 25 until some of these questions can be answered.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Matt: I think there are 5-6 games that as long as the Tar Heels remain relatively healthy the fan base will be expecting to win. The rest are pretty much a toss-up because each team is not only good they possess an experienced quarterback. The week two and three match ups with Wake Forest and Louisville will tell us a lot about the defensive progress that was made in the secondary as they face quarterbacks Tanner Price and Teddy Bridgewater.
With the Tar Heels banned from post season play many Tar Heel fans will be pointing to October 27th and the match up with NC State. The Wolfpack have beaten UNC five straight times and if Fedora wins this game he will be cheered in Chapel Hill regardless of the record.
Larry Fedora took over at Southern Miss in 2008 and each year the Golden Eagles averaged more points (2007: 27.8; 2008: 30.6; 2009: 32.9; 2010: 36.8; 2011: 36.9). The biggest jump he saw was in his third year (3.9 points per game) after he had a chance to get some of his recruits in place and develop his quarterback (Austin Davis started as a freshman in 2008). The good news for Fedora is that UNC has a lot of talent already in place and Bryn Renner now has a year of college football action under his belt. With Giovani Bernard to fall back on, the Tar Heels should have a good offense this season and they should see improvement on that side of the football.
Fedora's Southern Miss teams were up and down on defense and I think the same will happen this year with UNC. Fedora has installed co-defensive coordinators and they are moving to a new scheme. It seems risky (at least in the short term). Vic Koenning (one of the DCs) is well thought of and most recently coached at Kansas State in 2009 and then Illinois the past two years. His sidekick is Dan Disch. Disch coached with Fedora last year at Southern Miss and made a very positive impact on the defense (he also worked with Koenning at Illinois in 2010). This marriage could work but the competition level that UNC will be facing is a lot greater than Southern Miss faced last year. Look for UNC to show flashes on defense but I still think they will struggle in the defensive backfield until they get used to the new scheme and know where they need to be in each situation.
Last year, UNC started out 5-1 before they dropped four of their last six to close out the regular season. This season, their schedule looks to play out the same at the start as they should start out 4-1 (or at worst 3-2). The two early road games at Wake Forest and Louisville and then the back-to-back dates with Virginia Tech and Miami (FL) will make or break the season for the Heels. UNC gets a big break not facing two of the top three teams in the league (Clemson and FSU) but I'm not sure if they can take advantage of it in year one under Fedora.
2012 Prediction: 7-5
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big East: Temple